By Romany Webb

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt was again in the headlines last week after suggesting that scientists receiving agency funding may lack “independence and objectivity.” Speaking at an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation on October 16, Administrator Pruitt vowed to “fix” what he sees as the problem of such scientists serving on the agency’s advisory boards, so as to ensure “the veracity . . . [of] the scientific advice we’re getting.” Precisely what this fix will involve remains to be seen, but many have speculated that Pruitt may seek to change the composition of EPA advisory boards, to replace agency-funded scientists with industry representatives. That is, however, unlikely to improve the quality of scientific advice provided by the boards.

Contrary to Administrator Pruitt’s suggestion, EPA-funded scientists are not inherently biased, such that they should be prevented from serving on advisory boards. The same is, of course, true of industry-funded scientists. The mere fact that a scientist receives funding from industry does not necessarily mean that he/she will automatically oppose environmental regulation or otherwise make him/her biased. It does increase the potential for such outcomes, however. Numerous studies have documented a so-called “funding effect,” whereby industry-sponsored scientists are more likely to reach conclusions that align with the sponsor’s commercial interests, likely due to unconscious bias. Unfortunately, however, it is often impossible to tell whether a scientist may be affected by such bias as most do not disclose their funding sources (unless required to do so, for example, by a scientific journal publishing their work). Even where a scientist is appointed to serve on an EPA advisory board, the public may have no idea whether he/she is funded by industry.

I have previously written about the rules governing appointment of scientists to EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). In short, appointments are made by the EPA Administrator under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which applies to all executive advisory boards. SAB members are appointed as special government employees and must, therefore, comply with rules imposed by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). Under the rules, SAB members must complete a financial disclosure form listing all assets held, and income received, by themselves and their spouse before beginning service and annually thereafter.

The information provided in the financial disclosure form is used by EPA’s SAB staff office to assess whether the member’s “participation in an advisory activity would present a conflict of interest.” Such a conflict may, in some circumstances, disqualify the member from participating in the activity. For example, under the OGE rules, a member must not participate in the review of regulations affecting a company in which he/she holds stock. The rules do not, however, prevent participation where a member only receives income from such a company (i.e., does not have an ownership stake in it). In such cases, the member can generally continue to participate in activities affecting the company, without publicly disclosing his/her relationship to it. That’s a real problem as it means the public is unaware of the potential for any “funding effect” and cannot take it into account in assessing the reliability of the SAB’s advice.

The same problem arises in connection with other advisors used by EPA. Currently, EPA has twenty-four permanent advisory boards, which deal with everything from air quality to hazardous waste disposal. EPA also regularly convenes ad-hoc panels, for example, to undertake peer review of scientific studies. This serves an important purpose, helping to ensure that the scientific information relied on by EPA meets a basic level of quality, and make the public aware of any shortcomings. As such, EPA should seek to appoint independent reviewers or, where this is not possible (e.g., because there are a limited number of experts in the field), ensure any potential conflicts of interest are publicly disclosed. That does not usually occur, however. (Incidentally, peer reviewers and other EPA advisors are often not appointed as special government employees, and thus are not subject to even the limited conflict rules outlined above.)

These problems could be easily fixed by requiring all peer reviewers and other advisors to publicly disclose their financial interests and dealings. Ideally, disclosure should occur before the advisor is appointed, for example when the agency publishes a list of potential appointees for public comment. Where the public is not involved in the appointment process in this way, disclosure should be made to EPA before the advisor is selected, and the information made public as soon as possible thereafter. That way, the public can consider the advisor’s potential conflicts immediately, and can push for him/her to be disqualified from considering certain matters if necessary. Conflict of interest information should also be appended to any board reports, as well as any agency actions relying on such reports, so the public can identify potential biases that may have affected the outcome.

The standard response to calls for increased disclosure is that it may discourage scientists from participating in government advisory boards or acting as peer reviewers. This seems unlikely, however. In many cases, scientists will have already made their funding sources public, as disclosure is increasingly required by scientific journals. While disclosure may raise privacy concerns for some scientists, such concerns could be addressed by tailoring the disclosure requirements. One option, suggested by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), would be to require public disclosure of the source of all compensation received by advisors but not the precise dollar amount. Similar requirements have been adopted by the National Academy of Sciences – which, incidentally, continues to find many willing participants – as well as a number of public and private universities. Thus, in the words of BPC, EPA is fast becoming the “last bastion of secrecy.” That’s a problem that needs to be fixed.

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